The Value of Reading Other People’s Theses

It’s amazing how easy it is to write an entire masters or doctoral thesis without ever reading one.

Think about it: no-one would ever expect an author to write a novel without reading other novels; or a journalist to write about current affairs without cracking open a newspaper. Learning to write in a particular genre or medium almost always involves a lot of reading in that same genre or medium.

But for thesis writers, our main source materials are often slightly different from what we’re producing. We might read a ton of journal articles, books, conference proceedings, and so on… and just like a thesis, these are all examples of academic writing. But the thesis is a unique sub-genre of academic writing with its own traditions and conventions. So why don’t we read more of them?

Fortunately, theses and dissertations are readily available. At many universities, they are published online by default (unless embargoed). At AUT, our theses are published in Tuwhera, an open access repository. You can search Tuwhera by keyword, browse thesis titles, and even look for theses written with the guidance of a particular supervisor.

Beyond AUT, you can browse other universities’ repositories, or use a thesis-specific database like ProQuest to search globally.

Theses at a library (top); via Tuwhera (bottom left); and via ProQuest (bottom right)

There are loads of reasons why reading others’ theses or dissertations can improve your own thesis-writing game. Here are just a few.

Discover what passes examinations at your level

A thesis that is published in a repository is a thesis that has passed examination. This means that reading others’ theses is a great way to set your own expectations of what a passing thesis looks like at your level (e.g. masters or doctoral). Of course, different levels have different word limits; but that’s just the start of it. What is the difference in breadth and depth across levels? What are the expectations for the complexity of your thought? The type of language and vocabulary? The thoroughness of the research? Scanning others’ successful theses can give you a much more solid understanding of what you are expected to produce in order to earn your degree.

Learn the conventions of thesis-writing in your field

A sociology thesis will look drastically different from a zoology thesis – not just because the content is different, but because the conventions and traditions of academic writing in each field are different too. Each field evolves its own unique style of writing over time, creating a set of informal ‘rules.’ Reading widely in your field can help you to learn these rules, and reading theses in particular can help you to see how the rules apply at student level. Questions to ask as you read include:

  • How do other students in your field balance the components of their thesis? For example – how much detail do they include on methodology, or in the literature review?
  • How are theses in your field structured, and how much structural variation can you see between theses? (In other words, how much freedom do you have in setting your own structure?)
  • To what extent do theses in your field include elements like graphs, tables, images, calculations, and figures in addition to text?
  • How often are your fellow students citing others’ work? How do they demonstrate both an awareness of the literature and a contribution of their own?

Explore different formats

Just as theses can vary across level and discipline, they can also vary by format. At AUT we have three different thesis formats, detailed in the PG Handbook p.106-110:

  1. A traditional thesis (Format One)
  2. A thesis by manuscript (Format Two)
  3. A practice-oriented thesis consisting of an artefact or performance plus an exegesis (Format Three)

The finished written document you are expected to produce will vary greatly depending on which format you choose. If you are still choosing — or if you’ve chosen, but want some guidance — looking at other theses or exegeses in your format can show you how other students (successfully) interpreted the format and structured their own written output.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available